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November 22, 2017

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With little consensus, energy-related lawsuits move through court system

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Steve Marcus

In this file photo, solar supporters hold signs during a rally in front of Public Utilities Commission offices in January 2016. On Tuesday, March 22, 2016, members of Nevada’s New Energy Task Force heard public comments critical of a ruling by the utilities commission that raised fees for rooftop solar customers.

For several weeks this summer, settlement talks were underway between utility regulators and a trade group representing SolarCity and Sunrun. The negotiations between the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada and the Alliance for Solar Choice had the potential to end legal and political conflicts over a regulatory decision that imposed less favorable rates for rooftop-solar customers.

The talks broke down, and there was no deal.

But discussions continued out of court. NV Energy, which supports the new rate structure but wants existing solar customers grandfathered in under the prior rates, caught wind of the deal-making and brought the issue to Gov. Brian Sandoval, as did SolarCity.

The governor’s office sketched out preliminary terms, dated June 21 and obtained as a public record. The deal would have codified the PUC decision to increase bills by tripling a fixed fee and slashing incentives for rooftop-solar customers over 12 years, but asked the commission to grandfather existing customers. At the same time, the deal would have required all parties to dismiss their litigation and would have curtailed their ability to propose, pursue or support related legislation in Carson City.

DOCUMENT: Draft Net Metering Agreement

Eventually those talks broke down too, and the fight continues in court.

The backroom deal-making that failed this summer demonstrates the difficulty of reaching a consensus on the value of rooftop solar and several energy-related issues facing the state. Since December, at least seven lawsuits concerning rooftop solar have been filed, with two additional lawsuits emerging that question the PUC’s procedures for letting large companies leave NV Energy’s service.

Some have been dismissed. Others await a hearing. Here’s an update:

PUC’s Rooftop Solar Decision

The Alliance for Solar Choice vs. the PUC (Washoe County): After the PUC’s order in December, the trade group representing Sunrun and SolarCity appealed the new rate structure in the district court for Washoe County. A judge dismissed the suit for jurisdictional reasons in May. The Alliance for Solar Choice then filed a second lawsuit in Carson City’s district court.

The Alliance for Solar Choice vs. the PUC (Carson City): In June, a judge granted an order dismissing the Carson City case, since it was similar to a lawsuit from Vote Solar. That order said TASC could participate in the Vote Solar lawsuit, but TASC has asked that the judge amend its order to ensure it retains all of its rights as a party in the Vote Solar lawsuit.

Vote Solar vs. the PUC: With the two TASC cases effectively invalid, this is the case to watch. In March, advocacy group Vote Solar appealed the PUC decision in the district court for Carson City. The PUC defended its decision in a brief. The state’s consumer advocate and TASC are also participating. Both have filed arguments supporting the appeal. The case is awaiting a hearing.

Rooftop Solar Contracts

Jennifer and Henry DeCuir vs. SolarCity: A Northern Nevada couple sued SolarCity in February over allegations that the company had failed to disclose information about the possibility of rate changes. The suit, which claimed negligence, fraud and breach of contract, was seeking class-action status. Last month, a judge issued an order compelling arbitration. The attorney representing the couple plans to file arbitration claims for several clients.

John Bamforth and Stanley Schone vs. NV Energy: The lawsuit, also seeking class-action status, alleged that the utility gave false or incomplete information to the PUC as it considered a new rate structure. In June, a Clark County district judge granted NV Energy’s motion to dismiss the case but allowed the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint, according to the most recent filings in the case docket.

The Politics of the Decision

Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness vs. No Solar Tax PAC: Through political action committee Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness, NV Energy and its allies sued to challenge a ballot referendum that would have undone the PUC decision. Last week, the Nevada Supreme Court invalidated the ballot measure sponsored by No Solar Tax PAC, backed by SolarCity.

Sunrun Inc. vs. State of Nevada: In December, national rooftop installer Sunrun initiated legal proceedings against Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office in an effort to obtain text messages between his aides and lobbyists for NV Energy. Both sides agreed to drop the lawsuit in May, and Sandoval held a meeting with Sunrun’s CEO to announce the settlement agreement.

Leaving NV Energy

Switch Ltd. vs. NV Energy, the PUC, et al.: Data company Switch, whose effort to purchase electricity without NV Energy was denied by the PUC last summer, sued the utility and its regulator in July. It alleged that the PUC failed to treat it equally, enriching NV Energy in the process. A judge has granted an order asking parties to retain documents.

Wynn Las Vegas LLC vs. the PUC: The company asked a judge to review a PUC decision earlier this year that allowed it to purchase power without NV Energy but at a fee of about $15.7 million. Wynn Las Vegas questioned the PUC’s method for calculating that fee. The proceedings have been stayed, as Wynn proceeds with leaving NV Energy.

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